Humility, Hysteria and the Female Body in the selected writings of Hildegard of Bingen and The Book of Margery Kempe
Like visions of God, the study of the role and importance of the female body stands at the forefront of lots of text written by mystical medieval women. As we discussed in class, Julian of Norwich’s sick body allowed her to have visions of God, which is what inspired Shewings, and Margery Kempe believed that chastising her body and abstaining from sex would bring her closer to God, which is why she tells her husband that she would let him be slain sooner than she would have sex with him when he asks. In each of their books, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and Hildegard of Bingen each recount tales of men who oppressed them, attempted to control them, and doubted their Godliness. However, an overarching theme of these tales is that Medieval men did not have the ability or the desire to understand mystic women, so they were sometimes viewed as mad, ill, or foolish. These terms are synonymous with what would be described several centuries later as female hysteria, which is now believed to actually the manifestation of everything from panic disorders to drunkenness. Female hysteria has also become infamously known as a “dramatic medical metaphor for everything [about women] that men found mysterious or unmanageable” (Micale, 34). For women with mystical visions, there was seemingly only one way to discuss these visions without being perceived as hysterical: practicing lots of humility when discussing their Godliness. Margery Kempe was more than just a devout Medieval Christian: to many, she is viewed as a mystic with a closeness to God that is nearly incomprehensible, but her openness about her intimate relationship with God caused many to doubt and condemn her. Meanwhile, Hildegard of Bingen practiced humility and calmness in discussing her own mysticism, which may be one of the reasons that those around her perceived her as holy rather than hysterical. In this essay, I intend to explore the contradiction between Margery Kempe and Hildegard of Bingen’s hysterical and humble bodies in relation to their mysticism.
Early in her writing, the German Benedictine nun Hildegard of Bingen sent a letter to a priest named Father Bernard of Clairvaux asking for permission to write about her visions, but in this letter she was very humble in the way presented herself, insisting that her education was minimal. In a contemporary setting, a woman wanting to write about her ideas may have more luck if she emphasizes her stellar formal education, but in the twelfth century, this would likely have the opposite effect. If Hildegard of Bingen were to tell Father Bernard that she was a skilled reader, writer, and philosopher, rather than telling him that she “only [knew] how to read for simple meaning, not for any textual analysis,” then she may have been perceived as a threat to the men in the clergy and other men who considered themselves close to God (4). The reality of this possibility is presented in The Book of Margery Kempe: although her constant crying and outbursts are likely frustrating and disturbing, they also indicate a closeness to God that clergymen, especially those who hate her, felt a woman could not have and did not deserve. This may contribute to their views of her as a madwoman rather than a mystic. Although both Hildegard of Bingen and Margery Kempe lived and wrote several centuries before doctors began diagnosing women with “female hysteria,” the sentiment that women’s behavior is inherently caused by something that ails their weak bodies still stood. In The Book of Margery Kempe, when she is on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, Margery Kempe’s fits of holiness are so odious that her husband becomes so embarrassed that he pretends not to know her and the clergymen grow to resent her. During these outbursts, she is displaying a mania that would likely have been grounds for diagnosing hysteria in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although crying, fainting, and anxious fits were caused by her overwhelming closeness to God, they were also considered symptoms of her madness that would have been labeled female hysteria several centuries later.
In addition to being an “abbess and mystic,” Hildegard of Bingen was also an early female doctor (Tasca). Her work as a doctor is recognized as the most significant early attempt to reconcile science with faith, is something that continues to be attempted today. Unfortunately, Hildegard of Bingen’s attempt to reconcile science and faith happened mostly at the expense of science and her research and assumptions seems to parallel the research and assumptions made about female hysteria, which occurred several centuries later. Her writing indicates the belief that “melancholy is a defect of the soul originated from Evil and the doctor must accept the incurability of this disease,” and that “melancholic men are ugly and perverse, women slender and minute, unable to fix a thought, infertile because of a weak and fragile uterus” (Tasca). Similarly, female hysteria was frequently believed to be caused by a “wandering womb” that was most likely in need of a child (or in need of more children), and melancholia was considered a major symptom of hysteria along with anxiety, insomnia, irritability, sporadic crying, and fainting spells. Although Hildegard of Bingen is not noted as an early researcher of female hysteria per se, her writing about medicine indicates that the misogynistic beliefs behind female hysteria were present even in the twelfth century.
One final symptom of female hysteria that Margery Kempe displays is a bit more subdued but is present in The Book of Margery Kempe nevertheless: her seemingly erotic fantasies about her love for God. In the text, she is presented at one point explaining to her husband that she cannot engage in sexual activity on earth because she needs to channel her sexual energy into her “marriage” with God, and she proceeds to intimately describe their love and their marriage bed. Although sexual fantasy is among the less discussed symptoms of hysteria, for ages doctors believed that women who became engaged with elaborate fantasies, especially sexual fantasies should be considered hysterical, even if there was no accompanying melancholia, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, sporadic crying, and fainting spells (Devereux, 36).
It is not only Margery Kempe’s lack of humility in regards to her visions that causes people to disregard her as a mystic: although her sporadic weeping and rambling discussions of God may make her seem hysterical, her tendency to dress as a nun makes those around her to view her in even less favorable light. Hildegard of Bingen, too, dressed as a nun, but she actually was a nun, so her modest white garb was not unwarranted. The writing of medieval women touches on many issues, including religion, social inequality, and marital politics, but in indirectly addressing an issue that remained relevant for several centuries, these writers established long-term relevance and remain part of an ongoing historical discussion about female hysteria.
Devereux, Cecily. “Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender Revisited: The Case of the Second Wave.” ESC: English Studies in Canada, vol. 40 no. 1, 2014, pp. 19-45. Project MUSE.
Micale, Mark S. “Hysteria and Its Historiography: The Future Perspective.” History of Psychiatry, vol. 1, no. 1, Mar. 1990, pp. 33–124. SAGE Journals.
Tasca, Cecilia et al. “Women and hysteria in the history of mental health” Clinical practice and epidemiology in mental health : CP & EMH vol. 8 (2012): 110-9.
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